The death of Senator Edward M. Kennedy early Wednesday morning brings to a close the life and legendary career of one of Massachusetts's greatest political figures. It also hastens the issue of succession to the seat he has held since he was elected in 1962, a topic that has gripped the state's political class since Kennedy's brain tumor was discovered more than a year ago.
That interest is more than understandable. It's been a quarter-century since John Kerry won the state's last open US Senate seat in 1984. Coupled with our local fascination with all things Kennedy, it's no surprise that Kennedy's plan for Senate succession — suggested by him in a quickly leaked letter to state leaders Governor Deval Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo last week— has been the talk of the town.
If enacted, his plan would allow the governor to name a temporary replacement for a Senate vacancy, preferably one pledging to serve only for the five months until a special election for a longer-term replacement would be held.
In the strictest sense, the idea seems straightforward and uncontroversial. Current state law calls for a Senate vacancy to be filled by special election, but leaves the seat empty and the state underrepresented for five months. The change Kennedy recommended would provide a Bay State voice in the Senate for the interim, without affecting the special election. More poignantly, it would also ensure a 60th Democratic vote on the Senate floor, which is crucial for the passage of the health-care-reform legislation that was close to Kennedy's heart and supported by most of Beacon Hill.
And yet not everyone is on board. Some have voiced concern that Kennedy was trying to maneuver a hand-picked replacement into position — possibly even a family member. Others are concerned that Kennedy's proposal, even in light of his death, will be politically dangerous since it smacks — intentionally or not — of personal politics and interference.
Those latter concerns are certainly understandable.
For starters, politics was entirely behind the law being written as it now stands. Until 2004, the governor was empowered to choose a replacement to serve until the next federal election. But when Kerry was thought to be on his way to the White House, Beacon Hill Democrats yanked that power from Republican governor Mitt Romney.
Republicans at the time proposed the exact same temporary five-month appointment that Kennedy's plan calls for, to no avail. Those Republicans are now pounding Democrats for alleged hypocrisy should they adopt the change five years later. Opposition is therefore a pretty easy political calculation for the GOP — even though technically they are just as hypocritical for opposing it.
National Democrats eager to maintain their 60-vote supermajority would love to see the state adopt Kennedy's proposal. And at least according to initial polling, a slim majority of Bay Staters agree. But Beacon Hill Democrats who make the laws find themselves in a difficult position. They've been desperately trying to quell voter concerns that they run a rigged, patronage-laden, behind-closed-doors government. Changing the law for choosing a senator, for the second time in recent memory, and for obviously partisan political reasons, wouldn't exactly look like change and reform.
That political dynamic may be why we've heard nothing much about the proposal from Patrick, who had previously expressed interest in adding the appointment power, per Kennedy's wishes. Murray and DeLeo haven't really leapt to the microphones, either.
Instead, the matter has been handed to Brighton rep Michael Moran, the new chair of the Election Law Committee. Moran has said that his committee will look anew at the issue — which, before Kennedy's death, Phoenix sources inside the legislature interpreted to mean that nothing would be happening on it anytime soon.
Now nobody really knows how this change will play out. They may have wanted to stick it in a committee office and just walk away, but that might not be possible after Kennedy's death. Moran, undoubtedly, will be placed center stage.
Because it's the Kennedys, family intrigue always finds its way into the conversation. Rumors and reporting over the past year have suggested that Vicki Kennedy, Kennedy's wife, wants to inherit the Senate seat. That hasn't sat well with pols who have their own designs on it, including Attorney General Martha Coakley and Congressmen Steve Lynch and Michael Capuano. All three have boosters within the state legislature — most notably Murray, who is widely believed to support Coakley.
In what was seen as an attempt to take Vicki out of the equation, an anonymous "Kennedy family confidant" told the Globe last week that she is not interested in taking the seat, either as an appointee or candidate.
But she has not publicly made that claim herself, which has fueled further speculation. One person who has had a long relationship with the senator tells the Phoenix that, whether Kennedy intended it or not, his succession-plan proposal has heightened speculation that his wife will maneuver to succeed him. She would be the natural, sympathetic choice to cast the deciding vote on the historic health-care-reform legislation her husband held so dear. Once there, she could easily go back on any pledge to not run in the special election— after all, other potential candidates may feel reluctant to campaign against the widow.